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A Marine exploration company and the Kingdom of Spain are battling in a Tampa courtroom over what may be the most valuable shipwreck ever found. The company, Odyssey Marine, announced last year that its recovered a trove of silver and gold coins from the remains of a colonial-era ship in the Atlantic. It's been valued at half a billion dollars.
But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, one important question still needs to be answered. What shipwreck does Odyssey Marine think it found?
GREG ALLEN: The shipwreck is codenamed the Black Swan. Ten months ago, Odyssey Marine announced its find after recovering 17 tons of silver and gold coins along with other artifacts. The company flew it all to Tampa where it's based. Aside from these few details, little else has been made public about the find. No party has been more perturbed about the secrecy than the Kingdom of Spain. Many colonial-era treasure ships were Spanish, and Spain views efforts to salvage these sites as a threat to its cultural heritage.
Spain believes the treasure may be its property, and filed claims on shipwrecks Odyssey Marine registered after it found the Black Swan. Since then, the Spanish government and its lawyers have sought relentlessly to pry information from the company, going so far as the board and seize Odyssey Marine's ships in the Atlantic and impound computers and log books. At a court hearing today in Tampa, Odyssey Marine CEO Greg Stemm said there's a very good reason for the secrecy.
Mr. GREG STEMM (CEO, Odyssey Marine): We know there are still valuable artifacts down there, so why would you put out information that can just lead people to a spot that's very difficult to protect in international waters.
ALLEN: Even though many of the documents and photos submitted in court have been sealed, bits of information have begun to dribble out at hearings. The Black Swan, we've learned, was found 200 miles west of Gibraltar. That's fueled suspicion that the ship may be the Nuestra Senora dela Mercedez, a Spanish ship sunk off the coast of Portugal in 1804.
At today's hearing, though, Odyssey Marine's lawyers said they still have no idea what shipwreck they may have found. That explanation doesn't satisfy Spain's U.S. lawyer, James Goold. He's been pressing the court to grant him access not just to the treasure and artifacts recovered, but also to Odyssey Marine's research and planning documents. Goold says he wants to know what ship the company was searching for when it found the Black Swan.
Mr. JAMES GOOLD (Maritime Lawyer): You just look on their Web site and they make a big thing about how they research a shipwreck in exhaustive detail from historical records or other sources before they go out to look for it. And there's no reason whatever to think it was any different in this case.
ALLEN: Today's hearing also made clear that Spain is not just interested in the Black Swan, but also in another shipwreck Odyssey Marine discovered in the English Channel. Court documents suggest that it may be a 17th century British ship called the Merchant Royal. That ship was purported to be carrying multiple tons of Spanish gold and silver. Again, Odyssey Marine says it's still not sure what ship it's found. Odyssey Marine CEO Greg Stemm says, that's a fact of life in marine exploration.
Mr. STEMM: When we find a shipwreck site, we do everything in our power to try to figure out what that site is. It often requires many visits back to the site, sometimes it requires years of research to figure out what shipwreck it is. There are shipwrecks like the Tortugas site that we found back in 1989 that today, we still don't know what shipwreck it is. It's a real challenge with colonial-era sites.
ALLEN: While it's in court wrangling over these two finds, Odyssey Marine is still actively searching for new shipwrecks. It recently acquired the rights for another potentially valuable site off the coast of North Carolina, a shipwreck codenamed Firefly.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Tampa.
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